This is part two of our interview with Joanna, an experienced SEN specialist, school leader, and Student Support Services Mentor. We discussed in further detail the strategies that Joanna uses as part of her mentoring role. We learnt so much about how challenging it can be for gifted students with autism to navigate through university life at a time when the pandemic is still causing disruption. In the middle of all this, Joanna’s positive outlook and dedication to supporting others is inspirational. We are sure our readers will agree!
- Check out Part One of this Interview
- Read our post on Autism Awareness Day and Autism Acceptance Week (as promoted by the National Autistic Society).
Can you tell us a little about the challenges your students are facing this year?
Yes, and I’ve learnt so much about this already! Firstly, you cannot underestimate the impact of moving away from home for the first time whilst studying at a much higher level than ever before. Due to covid restrictions, many are still studying remotely on campus, whilst also having to look after themselves as adults. I have learned how difficult that can be for someone with additional needs.
I have also learned more about how autism presents in individuals with an incredible intellectual capacity.
We’re talking about students that will have had access to 1:1 support all through school whilst living with their families, who are learning to cope without that network?
That’s right… Let’s just take a few everyday things: washing and cooking. For someone with autism, planning, organising and sequencing is often a massive challenge. In this role, I’ve witnessed the challenges everyday tasks pose and the profound effect this can have on practical wellbeing.
One of my university students with autism has particular strong sensory tastes and he’s 150 miles from home. It’s a massive learning curve for him. Planning to set aside time for cooking and eating; sequencing and thinking in terms of ‘now and next’; working on two things simultaneously are all really difficult for him.
At the beginning of the year, he was so focussed and driven with his studies that he wasn’t finding the time to cook and eat! If, for instance, something went wrong with his food, or it didn’t taste right he wouldn’t be able to eat it… At the same time, he’s got several hours of study to get through that night. Facing the prospect of starting to cook all over again, and then being behind schedule? That’s anxiety levels through the roof!
This sounds extremely challenging for him. How is he doing now?
I spent a lot of weeks feeling like I wasn’t having much impact, he was so set in his ways, so negative. On our first meeting, I thought he was about to implode! On juggling University life with our sessions he told me, ‘this is unsustainable.’ I eventually learned this was just his way. When a few weeks later he was still there studying and turning up to my sessions I knew they were useful to him. This term, he has made a lot of progress and I’m really pleased to see how he is excelling in his studies whilst managing to keep much more on top of everyday student life.
This student, alongside having a huge intellectual capacity and severe autism, also has quite a negative outlook on life. He can get incredibly frustrated with himself and with those around him when something doesn’t go to plan. We’re talking about a young man who, if he gets 99% in an exam, will want to spend 15 minutes of our session working through how and why he didn’t get that 1%.
What strategies did you use to support him to make this progress?
In our earlier sessions, to try and encourage him to eat regularly and sleep, I’d say, ‘why don’t you try cooking first and then studying afterwards?‘ This was unacceptable to him, “unfeasible.” I quickly learnt to approach all topics from his point of view and to think in his terms.
Instead, I would say something like, ‘what could you do that would make cooking and eating feasible this week?’ I’d also bring everything back to his core goals and key focus. His goal is to achieve the highest mark in his degree and to embark on an amazing career. I know he has every potential to achieve this.
So, what I’ve done is talk to him about how eating and washing and sleeping are an integral part of him achieving this aim. Just as important as studying. This was a logical approach, unpicking all the factors that help him to work at his best, and was therefore acceptable to him.
In general, if I say something like, ‘would it work if you...’ … and he says ‘no! It wouldn’t work‘, I leave it. However logical it seems to me, I know that it’s not going to work for him and so there’s no point wasting time down that avenue.
We are able to have a laugh about his challenges sometimes. For example, recently when he got 100% in an assignment, I said ‘Oh that’s good we don’t need to talk about the one question you got wrong this time then!‘ We were both able to laugh about that.
It’s really important to acknowledge a student’s challenges, demonstrating that you’ve listened to them: ‘I know you find that really hard because last week you told me…’ before broaching how these challenges might be managed.
I remember my first year of university, being faced with a huge reading list. If you take that at face value it’s incredibly daunting, but you soon learn to ‘cut the corners’ where you can, you read the key summaries, and perhaps 2-3 of the key texts rather than the whole list…
Yes, and this student cannot ‘cut a few corners’ – if he was to cut a corner and it didn’t work out for him, i.e. he didn’t get the grade he wanted, he would spend weeks beating himself up. If faced with a suggested reading list of 100 books, he’s reading them all…
I understand that I have to accept he is who he is. We work from there. There’s no point dwelling on what I think is logical or what would work.
But amidst all this, he’s made huge progress recently – as I’ve mentioned, he’s massively negative, mainly on himself, ‘this has been a terrible week.’ But there is humour there too. He said that his friend had said he was a ‘glass half empty’ kind of guy. His response? He laughed, ‘I don’t even have a glass!‘
I prompt him to try to tell me about a few things that weren’t terrible, that might just be ‘ok.‘ He’s starting to try and identify positives, and as he grows more confident with managing university life, there are more good things to notice! Recently, he said to me, ‘I know that even though the week has been a tragedy, I have been able to see things that are OK!’ This was a big moment I think.
My counselling training comes back in here – I don’t deny anyone the right to feel how they feel; I try to help them process how they are feeling to gain perspective.
For young people that are having a difficult time at university, having access to a Student Support Services Mentor is fantastic. Does it feel like one session a week is enough though?
Some students tell me they are studying 10, 11, 12 hours a day – I’m giving them an extra hour. To be honest, I feel like more sessions would be too much. Overall, it’s important that we are productive with our time, and that I communicate well with Prospero Student Support Services to ensure that other departments at the university are able to offer support too.
The students I’ve worked with so far are amazingly intelligent – and they know how they learn best. Where possible, having an advocate at each university that can mediate on the student’s behalf would be amazing. They deserve the respect for people to show empathy and say, ‘oh gosh that must be so difficult! How about we tackle it this way?‘ or ‘I’m afraid we can’t do it like that, and the reason is…’